Time for troops

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 April, 1999, 12:00am

Before using armed forces to try to resolve a political problem, it is always wise to listen to what military men advise.

This would seem to be plain common sense. And yet as we enter the 13th day of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is the politicians - in particular President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair - who are dictating military matters.

During the Gulf War, once the conflict got under way, it was the generals who gave the orders. Unfortunately, the outcome was that the military men, able to unleash a dazzling array of smart weapons which had never before seen action, made it look all too easy.

But this apparent ease overshadowed the fact that it was also won by meticulous military planning: every step was carefully plotted and completed before the next was taken.

As a result, the politicians now appear to be blinded by the idea that smart bombs can solve any problem. These weapons turn the unpredictability of war into skilled surgery where only the bad guys get zapped.

All you have to do is point a cruise missile at a dictator's head and he will cave in. But the politicians, and anyone else who previously thought similarly within Nato, are going to have to rethink their assumptions, because they are now staring a potentially catastrophic defeat right in the face.

Nato, which is unquestionably the most powerful and effective military alliance in history, is at risk of being beaten; not on the battlefield, but beaten by the inability to achieve its objectives. And the price of this defeat could be very grave indeed.

Straightforward Regardless of arguments about the legality of Nato's cause, there is no question that its aims are just. A person who witnesses another being beaten on the other side of the street doesn't need to know what the law says is right before crossing to help the victim.

But if that person simply makes the situation worse and is humiliated into the bargain, they are unlikely to offer help again.

Defeat for Nato - which had little time to celebrate its 50th birthday yesterday - would mean that the United States, stung by the humiliation, would be unlikely to want to get involved in anything other than a very straightforward military conflict in the future.

And if the United States was to give up its leading role in Nato and in the maintenance of peace in Europe, it would spell the end of the alliance.

This outcome would be disastrous, not just for Europe where in places peace remains fragile or even non-existent - as it does in parts of the Balkans - but the disintegration of such a military power bloc would also have a seriously destabilising effect on the rest of the world.

For these reasons it is imperative that Nato does manage to succeed in its aim of restoring peace to Kosovo. But the politicians must now accept that for this objective to be achieved they must commit themselves to raising the military stakes dramatically.

Determined The cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs cannot stop bestial acts by small groups of determined men with hate in their heads and guns in their hands.

As many military planners said from the start, only ground troops can stop such acts.

If it is true, as we have been told many times, that Nato has no plans for sending in ground troops, then the incompetence is stunning; but it is actually impossible to believe that the eventuality of sending in such forces was never examined and rehearsed theoretically.

The truth is far more likely to be that a scenario in which ground troops are deployed has been brainstormed by military planners and the results showed that the consequences would be bloody and success uncertain.

These are consequences which were unacceptable to the leaders of Nato countries, who need to serve up swift victories with few casualties, preferably on both sides, but certainly among their own forces. All that, however, has now changed.

The alliance is now in a mess and time is running out fast for it to extricate itself.

In a matter of days Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will possibly have succeeded in driving out all in Kosovo he does not want to be there. With some two million displaced people in its midst, Europe will have a disaster of truly terrible proportions on its hands.

And by that time it will be too late for Nato to employ its overwhelming military might to save the situation, or, very probably, itself.